Monthly Archives: March 2009

Forget election coverage for a minute

By issuing his latest ultimatum to the titans of American industry, Barck Obama has demonstrated either contempt or incapacity for political sleight of hand. There was nothing unprecedented in this pronouncement, unless you were expecting a little more support for Main Street. Far from pulling the purse strings shut, Obama has begun to tie them around the government’s neck, issuing a 60-day timeline for further restructuring under the watchful eye of an executive appointed taskforce. After 30 years of GM’s failed restructuring, another two months under executive control is supposed to produce the blueprints for the lean, efficient, and competitive company that Obama is demanding. But don’t worry, if the plan is still inadequate at the end of the 60 day period, there will be no more blank checks, no more ultimatums. Nope, instead the channels will be cleared for fast bankruptcy procedures and GM will start its restructuring all over again.

Maybe it’s time we just jettison dead American industries, let their emblem vanish because the symbol of the American auto industry can no longer justify the pedestal on which we place it. Let’s face it, GM is no longer competitive. If it had spent even half the cash on creating a fuel-efficient car that it did on lobbying Congress to water down fuel economy standards, the company might not be in the shit position it’s in right now. There are other car companies better suited for our investment. Take Tata, an Indian company that just released the world’s smallest, cheapest, most fuel-efficient car. Maybe it’s time we start dropping our protectionist measures and open the American market to a $2,000 car that could be produced in re-tooled GM and Chrysler factories. Better yet, we could train an idle workeforce for the production of a viable public transportation infrastructure. Afterall, we’re not going to redefine America simply by uplifting antiquated industries.


Black Bank Money

Now that Varun’s martyrdom just got a little more real with the invokation of the NSA, the BJP has had enough of all this tamasha and has decided to campaign on the pressing issue of… swiss bank accounts!

Striking a new populist tone to counter Congress’s “everything but the kitchen sink” giveaway manifesto (see Broadband for Everyone!), Advani wants Indian bank accounts in Switzerland investigated. These accounts, presumably held by corrupt industrialists and politicians who have stolen the country’s money, are now a “serious poll issue.” Unfortunatly, simply declaring something a poll issue doesn’t make it one, but BJP organs are doing their best to pump it up. This chain email from Sangh Parivar site is particularly interesting, not least because it reads like free-verse poetry:

scandalous politicians and corrupt IAS, IRS, IPS
have deposited in foreign banks in their illegal personal accounts
a sum of about $ 1500 billion,
which have been misappropriated by them..

With this amount 45 crore poor people
can get Rs 1,00,000 each.
This huge amount
 has been appropriated from the people of India by
exploiting and betraying them.

full text here:

The piece emphasizes corruption in high places and the ever-widening income gap in India, but glosses over the complexity of these problems (and the BJP’s complicity in them). Instead, the whole mess is conveniently traced back to Swiss banks:

Once this huge amount of black money
 & property comes back to India , the
entire foreign debt can be repaid in 24 hours.
After paying the entire
foreign debt,
we will have surplus amount,
almost 12 times larger than the foreign debt.
If this surplus amount is invested in
earning interest,
the amount of interest will be more than
 the annual budget of the Central government.
even if all the taxes are abolished, then also
the Central government will be able
 to maintain the country very comfortably.

…Problem  solved! Who says the BJP doesn’t know economics?

Broadband for everyone!

‘If being pro-poor is populism, we’re guilty” Jairam Ramesh, Congress Party Strategist

This is the quote now being towed around the mainstream headlines like a charm, lingering on the Times of India frontpage as if its mere presence were sufficient enough in disarming BJP and Congress Party critics of their skepticism. And there is a lot to be skeptical about with an agenda that bends over backwards and then cartwheels past all plausible reforms only to arrive in a hypothetical India where there’s “broadband in every village”. I don’t think “populist” is the right term to characterize this platform – parody seems more suitible. After all, the party that failed to raise the minimum wage or offer job security to unorganized workers while it was in power, is now proposing cure-all social measures in the form of broadband internet access and jobs for everyone.

Before Congress feeds too many false promises to the voting banks,  it would do better to remember that it’s easier to get to power than to stay in power, and the masses that propel it forward can just as easily become the mob that yanks it back. Congress leaders should therefore tread carefully on these campaign grounds. After all, you can’t just attract people to a closed curtain and then expect them to be complacent when you pull back the cloth and nothing is there. Despite all appearances to the contrary, this isn’t a carnival that can just be packed up and moved. Whoever comes to power better have something on stage when the curtain is raised. My guess is it won’t be internet.


Varun gets sent to the slammer today in a display that Congress quickly wrote off as “tamasha” (drama or spectacle). Having withdrawn his bail pleas yesterday, Varun swept into Pilibhit with thousands of followers to present himself to the court. He will be held in judicial custoday until Monday while the prosecution decides its next move. To echo Congresses analysis, it would be difficult to characterize Varun’s entrance- dressed in a red kurta, solemnly pumping fists in the back of an open jeep- and the subsequent demostrations and clashes with police that left 3 injured as anything but a spectacle. While the BJP has remained quiet today, it seems clear to me that Varun’s surrender was carefully planned out by the party leadership.

In other news, the press is hot on the tale of “the new Varun,” BJP candidate Ananth Kumar Hegde of Karnataka. The Times of India reports that Hegde promised party workers that he will break the law to keep minorities from taking out any processions in his district, declaring: “I’ve got 63 criminal cases against me, and I’m not afraid of one more.” According to National Election Watch, these charges include “rioting armed with deadly weapon” and “voluntarily casuing hurt to mischief.” Last October, Hegde encouraged the idea of armed Hindu militias as an anti-terror weapon. The new Varun is yet another indication of how the BJP will play its hand.  “I do not need a single minority vote to win elections,” states Hegde.

Prince of Wounds

Nehru family

Varun Gandh’s candidacy and his alleged hate speech are all over the news right now, and who can really blame the media? Nehru’s great-grandson running under the flag of the BJP and spewing anti-Muslim filth in his campaign speeches? It’s better than last year’s  scoop that Barack Obama and Dick Cheney are distant cousins. Varun and his mother, having turned (or been pushed) away  from the family’s Congress dynasty, slowly entered the fold of the BJP (Maneka did not formally join the party until 2004). Varun is contesting the Pilibhit seat in Uttar Pradesh this election and running an increasingly sectarian campaign, hoping to play on anti-minority sentiments and fear of Pakistani/Muslim aggression. With this move, he has staked out a place at the bleeding radical edge of accepted Hindutva politics and, as a looming figure in his party,  pulled the rest of the BJP back to a militant position it has backed away from in the last few years.

Varun is an interesting avatar for militant Hinduism, and not only because of his storied lineage. Before his political debute, Mail Today reports, he was known as a quiet scholar and poet among friends. A graduate of the prestigious LSE and SOAS, he published a book of poetry in 2000 with the curious  title, “The Otherness of Self.” In one composition titled “Prince of Wounds,” he makes the prophetic declaration:

I confess

 I am a little in love with my sin

 As I stray

 I am told

 Don’t think but look

 The walk must show the way

 So there’s no accountability

 A stranger is just a victim you haven’t met.

With this soul-searching screed in mind, I wonder if Varun’s recent nasty streak might have less to do with cutting off the “otherness of self” and more to so with saavy opportunism (as does much political chauvinism). The sin that he loves is not the exotic (and easy to hate) sin of bigotry and rabid communalism, but instead the more familiar sin of calculated, yet dangerous, political manipulation in the quest for power. In this light, Varun is not so much the family pariah as legitimate heir to the throne. It just goes to show, you can wrap a Gandhi in saffron, but he’s still a Gandhi.

Full article from Mail Today at

The Era of Coalition

At Nehru University, on the edge of South Delhi, we sit with a group of seven students to conduct our first interview. ostensibly, we are researching the upcoming national election, which we witness as the world’s largest democracy building itself a stage and spotlight. No one can ignore the glow that this election is casting over the streets and bus stations of India. The party signs and promises are everywhere, and everywhere the audience is assembling, taking sides in the biggest show on earth.

Without judgment of our ignorance, the students give us a primer on the differences between our political systems. I am amazed by the elaborateness, by the multiplicity of mechanisms shielding this system from the party monopolies that have made a two-player game of power back home. This is the country of a hundred parties. Survival of any depends on consensus of many. That is not to say India is absent the petty polemics or political division that characterize so many spheres of the political world. This campaign season has seen strict distinctions cleaved between the nationalist agenda of the BJP and the more progressive agenda of the Congress Party, as both parties rival for the magic majority that will allow them to form their coalition government. But no campaign is absent division, and one gets the sense that once this election ends, the edges between parties will be rewoven, again and again, until a government  is formed that adequately reflects and represents the needs of India.

Among the young students at Nehru University, the needs of India are clear. Before focusing on foreign policy and environmental regulations, India needs to feed the 78% of the population who lives on Rs 20 a day (40 cents), and protect its population and policy from the  growing fundamentalism and factionalism that threatens its geographic, social, and political borders.  Of course these issues, singularly defined, extend much further than my analysis, but until the election ends and the coalition government is formed, we cannot know how far or it what direction. One thing is certain, this system is not set up to play out the whims of single ideologies, but to maneuver around them, for in the “era of coalition”, as one student put it, “everything comes down to consensus.”

The Quiet Americans

This is an attempt by several young Americans to explore and document the emergent new orders of politics and culture in this turbulent age. We begin in India on the eve of national elections in hopes of gaining some understanding of politics in the world’s biggest (greatest) democracy. Indian politics is like a three ring circus- boisterous, alluring, and full of intrigue and bluster- but it is also a delicate dance of consensus; opponents are to be out-maneuvered, not out-shouted and one must be careful not to step on anyone’s toes. Here politics reach to embody the greatest legacies of protest and universalism and the shriek of communalism and national chauvanism, and 1 billion humans struggle to live together within the bounds of the modern nation-state.

Disclaimer: If we are short on knowledge, we are plum out of wisdom concerning the people and politics on which we write. Yet hasty exploration runs in our blood so we will forge stupidly ahead. Bear with us, chasten us heartily, and hopefully we might pry open a little wider our collective realms of imagination.